Few interfaces have changed more often – or more radically – than the Xbox dashboard. Most platforms with a large user base are incredibly slow to make major changes, but that is not the case for Microsoft game consoles. History shows that its strategy for working in new functions and services has scrapped the previous interface, essentially asking you to re-learn how to use the machine and find your content.
Microsoft deserves the honor of experimenting with its dashboard over the years, even if many of those experiments weren’t great. With the Xbox Series X to be released later in 2020, it now seems a good time to see the history of the Xbox One and the Xbox 360 dashboard to see where it has been and where it is going.
Some updates were better (or worse) than others, but they all have something in common: they are all followed by a new vision. As this visual history indicates, some of their ideas are seen in modern iterations of the dashboard and will come in updates and perhaps also in future consoles.
Good: Quick and tidy
Bad: It looked like a Winamp skin
The “blades” dashboard interface debuted on the Xbox 360 upon launch, organize all main functions of the console into separate sections. This interface had much more to squeeze in than the relatively scarce yet stylish dashboard on the original Xbox. Yet it was neat and easy to understand. Fast switching between sections was also responsive and elements could be loaded quickly (even with the 36012 RAM of the 360). And that ‘whoosh’ sound effect of changing blades will stay in my brain forever.
You could argue that this was so close that Microsoft could perfect the dashboard, although you could also claim that it would not have been properly scaled up with future ambitions). That said, inspiration from this dashboard can be found in the following updates if you look well enough.
New Xbox experience (2008)
Good: Avatars! More adaptable than knives
Bad: Not as fast or satisfying to use as knives
Three years after the launch of the Xbox 360, Microsoft swept the slate clean NXE interface Updating. And with the arrival of Netflix instant streaming and other entertainment-based apps, the Xbox 360 began to descend into interface madness and had to play with other forms of entertainment on the dashboard. It started to look like a set-top box.
Remnants of the beloved sheets could be found when you pressed the Xbox button on the controller. But on the dashboard they were replaced so that each section was stacked on top of each other. Navigate to the one you want, and all of your content lived within the tile-based interface that you could scroll from left to right. It looked more polished and mature than knives, but it wasn’t necessarily faster or easier to use. Some may have liked it, but not everyone did that.
Under the hood, it brought some important updates to the Xbox 360, such as avatars to compete with Nintendo’s Miis. It also introduced the ability to stream HD videos on Netflix, create games on Xbox Live and install games on the hard drive for faster loading.
Kinect update (2010)
Good: More refined version of NXE
Bad: Also more complicated, and Kinect support was horned
Avatars were just part of Microsoft’s plan to copy the successful Wii. It wanted gamers to use the Kinect camera to get moving, and that is why Kinect became the focal point of the design for this new dashboard update.
This was really a small visual update of the NXE. It still had the same overall appearance, structure and navigation that the 2008 update introduced, but Microsoft was working with the Kinect (RIP) to move across the dashboard. If you didn’t like the NXE, you probably didn’t like it either.
Good: Nice to look at, in a certain sense the main navigation in knife style reduced
Bad: Simplistic interface did not help in quickly searching content
The 2011 update that introduced the “Metro” design showed that Microsoft was trying to juggle more than ever, but opted for a new dashboard that didn’t offer enough space to express it comfortably. The design language gave a feeling of “less is more”, but what it really proved was that less was less. Microsoft is still trying to shake off some ideas from the Xbox One dashboard that came with this update.
Each screen contained only a few tiles, and to find other content, you had to go to separate folders. And in its sixth year on the market, some of these features began to show the age of the Xbox 360.
In a sense, this dashboard update has merged blades with the NXE so that you can use the bumpers to switch between a la blade categories and navigate through each of the colorful tiles in each section as you could in NXE. And of course it was compatible with Microsoft’s Kinect, so if you had the camera, you could swipe between menus by waving your hand or using your voice to search for Bing.
Under the hood, the update brought some important functions, such as cloud storage for storing games. We followed all its developments in 2011 before it was launched.
The launch dashboard (2013)
Good: Very adaptable
Bad: Crowded and confusing to navigate, rather laggy, one-sided focus in favor of TV
The Xbox One was launched on the heels of Windows 8, so it’s no surprise that the ‘Metro’ design of the desktop operating system was used as the basis of the launch dashboard in 2013. Unlike the Xbox 360 dashboards, which shown above, using a similar style, this was a certified mess to navigate because it mixed games with TV and everything else on the home screen. Discovering new content had priority over discovering existing content.
Microsoft’s first stab on the Xbox One dashboard was ambitious in all the wrong ways, although it has since reversed most major mistakes. For example, Microsoft did not see the revolution in cords coming, so its big on-demand TV and DVR gamble flew away. In addition, the conceptually great ‘snap’ feature that Microsoft believed in so deeply that a button was placed on the controller was abandoned in 2017. (The button will be completely removed on its new Xbox controller that comes in 2020).
Good: Much easier to navigate than the start dashboard
Bad: Faster but still not spicy
The first major overhaul of the Xbox One dashboard put the much needed focus on your games. It also promised to be faster, and it was, but it wasn’t nearly fast enough. Microsoft had just launched Windows 10, and just like on PC, it did a big push for its voice assistant Cortana on console. The iterations of the dashboard that follow all the riff of the general design introduced here, that is, Microsoft was on the right track with this update.
Good: Further emphasis on pins to sort content
Bad: Too much content still lived just outside the frame
The next update from Microsoft injected Fluent Design, the look and feel that Microsoft used for Windows 10. The new home screen focused on showing your recent activity and giving gamers faster access to community functions.
It also made better use of pins, with which you can split apps and games into sections. Instead of having to scroll through tiles and menus to find your content, it was much easier to be able to scroll vertically through some pins, but still not perfect. Game Pass debuted in 2017 before this dashboard update was released, but while the service caught on, it remained a little too far out of sight.
The refinement process (2018 – present)
Good: With each update it gets better and (finally) less delayed.
Bad: Everything changes more often than ever
Cortana speech interaction has disappeared. With FastStart you can start games before they have finished downloading. Xbox Game Pass has its own section about the main navigation. The eject button, it’s coming! Microsoft iterates faster than ever on the Xbox One dashboard, and in the interest of speeding things up, cleaning up earlier cruboards and making access to games easier.
Regarding the latest update that was released at the end of February 2020, my colleague Tom Warren says that it “focuses on reviewing the homepage of the Xbox One dashboard, with commonly used games and apps available immediately. The new Home design also includes the ability to add or remove rows to further customize, and quick access to Xbox Game Pass, Mixer and the Microsoft Store. You can read more about it here.
It has never been so clear that Microsoft is trying to resolve quickly for its constant identity crisis with the dashboard. The Xbox One has undergone major adjustments to the dashboard more often than before, and the stakes are high the closer we get to the launch of the Xbox Series X at the end of 2020.
Xbox series X
Launch dashboard (2020)
Microsoft will launch the Xbox Series X at the end of 2020, and it is questionable whether it will choose to start all over again with a new dashboard for its new console or whether it will build on the momentum of the latest Xbox One dashboard update, and what must come between now and the launch day.
Given that Microsoft praises backward compatibility with games from all previous generations of Xbox, it is easy to imagine that it chooses to load a slightly modified version of the dashboard of the Xbox One into the Series X. We will have to wait and see what it chooses Do.